kmurray on Wed, 4 Feb 1998 10:50:01 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> The Insect Metaphor by Kevin Murray

The Insect Metaphor


By Kevin Murray

'And now Aeneas saw in a side valley a secluded grove with copses of 
rustling trees where the river Lethe glided along past peaceful dwelling 
houses. Around it fluttered numberless races and tribes of men, like bees 
in a meadow on a clear summer day, settling on all the many-coloured 
flowers and crowding round the gleaming white lilies while the whole plain 
is loud with their buzzing.'
The souls of the dead draw from the rivers of forgetfulness to re-format 
their hard drives and enter a new life back on earth. Virgil, the son of a 
beekeeper, makes the comparison between human and bee society throughout 
his verse. As in the Roman ideal, the world of the bee depends on the rule 
of a single monarch, and members are ready to sacrifice their lives for the 

<I say I say I say>

I say insect colonies offer themselves up as mirrors for their human hosts. 
They provide a symbolic language for arguing between the needs of the 
collective and the individual. Like insects themselves, these 
representations mutate over time and evolve into exotic models of human 
behaviour. McLuhan spoke of the mission of humans to 'fecundate' 
technology. It was a tenuous metaphor to begin with. Today it barely rates 
as a metaphor - more like a description.


In nineteenth century England, insects offered proof of the intricate 
handiwork carried out by the divine craftsman. Before Darwin revealed 
otherwise, entomology was a pious pursuit, implying appreciation of the 
fine print in god's plan. As a nineteenth-century religious tract, The 
History of Insects, proclaims: 'The Lord of hosts is wonderful in counsel, 
and excellent in working.' Written from our more worldly view of nature, 
A.S. Byatt's Angels and Insects uses the insect kingdom to show the 
savagery beneath the surface order of Victorian society.

In our time, the theatre of insects has moved from the bench to the screen. 
On the way, Melbourne jeweller Susan Cohn has produced a liminal series of 
creatures titled Reflections, which interprets the Lalique dragonfly woman 
(who will reappear later). They are intended as personal club accessories 
for containing/displaying condoms. These elaborate sporrans have wings 
assembled from rainbow reflective sunglasses, through which human faces 
turn into bug-eyed screens.

The screen looms particularly large in the French film Microcosmos. This is 
a documentary of pure image-no biology, no sagacious commentator, just pure 
screen spectacle. 'Meet the Beetles!' as the publicity proclaims.

As the screen contracts, we come closer to a bug's view of the world. In 
Toshio Iwai's electronic art piece, Insect Music, we can manipulate a 
network of sound bots to explore musical algorithms. Composers such as 
Michael Nyman and David Chesworth use the insect as a device for developing 
sound loops; there's something intrinsically digital about insects.

<What is that cluster of pixels, my little cursor, my insect prosthesis, 
buzzing around the screen, collecting bits of information for the 
collective mind? Waiter?>

Computer games place the spectator inside this insect spectacle. SimAnt 
transforms the desktop into a digital formicary. Other Maxis 'god games', 
such as the 'timeless classic' SimCity, put human society itself under 
glass and transform what might seem a meeting of individual interests into 
a congealed mass of algorithms. While such 'god games' put us in the 
position of beekeeper, other titles consign us to life as an insect, at 
least during our time on screen.

Alyssa Rothwell's comic CD-ROM Three Mile Creek is one of many titles that 
populate the screen with flies. In this scene, waving the cursor helps shoo 
flies from the backs of these Aussie blokes. While we struggle with the 
awkward interface between real and virtual realities, insects are 
privileged to move freely between analogue and digital.


It is with this freedom of passage that the fly first introduces us to our 
new life at the interface. The menu screen for Peter Gabriel's CD-ROM 
Xplora positions us as a fly on the star's face. As one of the first public 
encounters with multimedia, this title is responsible for teaching us how 
to behave in front of a screen.

It provides a model for the most-lauded CD-ROM, Myst. For much of this 
work, we are a lowly fly buzzing about its monumental scenes. This is 
presented more literally in Myst imitators, such as Bad Mojo. The hero is 
here transformed into a cockroach, which has to perform a very Myst-like 
quest of re-connecting broken circuits to save a beleaguered father. Filled 
with Myst jokes, the CD-ROM Obsidian contains an infestation of various 
digital critters, in forms such as cute nanobots that blindly assemble 
worlds. In their own sequel, Riven, the Miller brothers go to some length 
to infest their worlds with insects, which both liven up the screen and 
heighten an enigmatic Egyptian mood.

Mark Posner once warned that new media is like the juicy piece of meat you 
throw at the dog so you can rob its house unharmed. Actually, the flies got 
to the meat first.

Is this effect limited to CD-ROM? The Internet seems too text-based, too 
flat for buzzing pointers. But this is clearly wrong. It's not so much the 
screen itself but the rhizomic structure of the net that makes it the 
ultimate apiary.


Searchbots are the Internet's native insect species, gathering information 
pollen from sites around the world and storing data in hives such Altavista 
and Lycos. Given the current experiments with 'endogamous fitness', it is 
not long before rogue bots evolve to form their own hives.

<Wild bots colonise the net. Their databases offer unique insights into 
human thought. As if...>

Web art has moved from works of singular artistic vision to invitations for 
mass participation, such as Jane Prophet's Swarm 
( Following the successful 
Technoculture, Swarm invites narrative contributions to the hive mind as 
well as offering entomoid diversions such as painting with pixels.

This bridging insect metaphor is no longer a necessary means for sites to 
invite participation. Russian artist Alex Shulgin is one of the net's 
principle beekeepers. There's nothing about insects in his works. What they 
demand of visitors is a more abstract entomoid pleasure in screen 
production. His Form Art Competition ( 
invites submissions that change HTML from a medium of communication to an 
anorganic substance for visual patterning.

The brevity of insect life makes it an apt stage for evolution-this theatre 
of rapid mutation is now turning into a mirror. Persistent Data Confidante 
( demands of visitors a confession before 
they can enter the site. The database of confessions will be culled so that 
the most popular 10% can be mutated. By the end, we can uncover the secret 
of secrets.
<How do bees make wax? With the tarsal joint of its hind leg, the bee 
extracts a kind of dandruff from its dorsal segments, which it mixes with 
saliva and kneads into wax for the walls of the hive. What do people do 

In Rose Stasuk's Pocket Protector 
(, contributors 
extract images that are scaled and treated until they can be inserted into 
the image layer and contribute to a collective work.

Is this the 'hive mind'? For its wired prophet, Kevin Kelly, the emergence 
of distributed computing enables forms of intelligence to develop that 
transcend individual consciousness. He offers us a Faustian bargain-to 
forgo our sense of self for a greater collective buzz. Perhaps all those 
entomoid web sites are dress rehearsals for the final metamorphosis.

<I say we must I say>

Despite the millennial appeal of the swarm, we must accept that a decision 
to enter the hive, either fantastically in art or through banal everyday 
decisions such as buying a mobile phone, entails some kind of loss. You 
can't re-format the drive without destroying the data.

David Blair's WaxWeb sits very much in the interstice between the old and 
the new-I and we. The future dead, as seen on bee television, haunts Earth. 
A personal present lies in the shadow of a collective future.

In the course of its web life, Blair's narrative evolved from an authorial 
vision to a collective Waxmoo. Like all metaphors, insects provide only 
part of the picture, and as a transitional web site, WaxWeb grants a 
central role to the missing element: the artist him or herself. The 
beekeeper hero wanders through NASA like a terrestrial astronaut, attuned 
to the alienating effects of the technological edifice.


His presence evokes older more paranoid images of insects, such as Kafka's 
Metamorphosis. Think back thirty years to the last great humanist movement, 
when it was still possible for a popular author like Robert Pirsig (Zen and 
the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1972) to use insects as a spectre of 
totalising technology. 'All this technology has somehow made you a stranger 
in your own land... What you see is the NO TRESSPASSING KEEP OUT signs and 
not anything serving people but little people, like ants, serving these 
strange, incomprehensible shapes.'

Around this time was born the sentimental icon of technological entrapment. 
In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Dave Bowman is a worker bee attending to 
his moving hive-that is, until it decides he is no longer needed. The 
ensuing struggle with the very technology that gives him life is 
economically rendered in the publicity still of a face behind glass, like a 
bug in a jar. Note the anamorphic distortion on the side of his helmet, as 
the computer screens reflect on his visage.

<Why at the apotheosis of human achievement, the moon landing, is the face 
of the astronaut hidden behind reflecting glass?>
Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear (dis)inherits that mantle. This helmeted hero 
has his own more resolutely existential form of alienation as he glimpses 
an advertisement for himself on the television. The unique self-fashioned 
hero suddenly recognises himself as just another commodity on the shelf, a 
disposable item of the system. Like Bowman, his helmet also reflects 
exterior screens, though his reveals mass television rather than specialist 

This curiosity for the plight of the human trapped inside a machine takes 
dramatic shape in Star Trek. In the evolution of human into insect, the 
evil species known as Borg have internalised the previously exterior 
viewing apparatus. The space helmet has been now absorbed into their left 
eye, which provides a screen through which they see the world as one of a 

A recurring source of fascination in the Star Trek series is the inner life 
of Borg. Characters like Hugh, Picard, Data and in the CD-ROM the audience 
itself, find themselves absorbed into the Borg collective. In accordance 
with the official Trek ideology, they prove that human courage can resist 
the uncritical mass. While Star Trek offers a more traditional romantic 
opposition between individual and collective, this seems to thinly veil a 
contrary truth. In their dedication to the starship, is not the crew of the 
Enterprise itself just another colony of insects, diligently pursuing their 
duties for the good of the whole?


Looking back now over the depiction of insects in recent media, there are 
two opposing positions on entomorphosis. The utopian small screen would 
have us lighten the load of individualism-to pool our creative resources 
and make the honey of collective art. In the more paranoid big screen, such 
assimilation represents a betrayal of self, with its fragile allegiances to 
friend, family and home.
I say these voices can be heard everyday as we make choices about going 
online. It's the question of our time and the insects are question marks.

<Resistance is futile, not>

This paper is a nettime version of a talk given at ISEA in 1997. Rather 
than explore Deleuzian thoughts along this line, I have opted for a more 
literal survey of insect life on the small screen, with some haptic 
annotations. Pictures can be gathered at

Kevin Murray

Forecast for Melbourne Issued at 0505 on Wednesday the 4th of February 1998 
Fine. A mainly sunny day with light wind and afternoon sea breezes. Max 27

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